For the majority, even if the featurettes in home media releases tell a different story, the making of a movie is always an adventure. Naturally, when we have reached the field of Hollywood blockbusters, most of the production schedule has been planned months in advance, leaving nothing to mere chance, but then again life often has a way of changing even the best of plans. In general, most of the films we now consider masterpieces have been made under rather adventurous, often tumultuous and at times even dangerous circumstances.
Additionally, there is also the historical and political framework to consider in the making of art. Countries such as Russia, China or the Czech Republic have a troublesome history of political institutions intervening in the production of a film, censoring artists and their work and at times even banning those involved from working or worse. Sadly, these practices continue until today in some of these countries which result in artists being forced into silence or giving in to the ideological needs of the nation, for example, by making propaganda.
When it comes to the field of history, these documents, set within the right context, may shed an interesting light into our present, may lead to questions essential in constructing our future. For artists such as Afghan-American artist Mariam Ghani, the idea of looking “into places, spaces and moments where social, political and cultural structures take on visible and tangible forms“, as she states on her homepage, defines the foundation of her work. During her various works, she has often re-visited Afghanistan, has taken a closer look at the changes within the country, its past and its present, and in her debut feature film “What We Left Unfinished” she takes a closer look at historical artifacts from the country’s history.
More precisely, the documentary includes the story behind five feature films which have been made during the years between 1978 and 1991. Largely sponsored by the communist Afghan government in that time “April Revolution” (1978), “Downfall” (1987), “The Black Diamond” (1989) “Wrong Way (1990) and “Agent” (1991) reflect the ideological, political needs of the system in some way, but remain unfinished due to the shifts within the political landscape during those years. Supported by interviews with the cast and crew from the films, Ghani paints an interesting, sometimes amusing, sometimes scary image of what it means to make films under often adverse circumstances.
In the case of creating art financed and supported through an outside entity demanding the project to reflect their political agenda is always problematic. During the course of the film, the actors and directors Ghani interviews are quite aware of the issue, while they also admit the alternative of not working at all or to be banned would have been worse. At the same time, there is also the powerful artistic drive to create, to film and to tell a story which admittedly becomes quite fascinating and captivating for the viewer of the documentary. Additionally, you become quite aware of the dangers some of these people went through for their art, for example, when you hear of action scenes with real bullets, tanks and bazookas which, for obvious reasons, caused quite a few accidents. An especially fascinating tale is when one of the directors talks about a famous political leader playing himself in the movie, who had his guards observing every step of the crew holding loaded rifles in their hands.
Cinema, as one of the interviewees states, can always serve as a powerful weapon. Nevertheless, even within a repressive framework, many of these artifacts give away clues to their directors’ and writers’ intentions who also ceased the opportunity to tell a story about their “ideal world” consisting of concepts such as reconciliation, peace and love. In the end, as the film progresses, you cannot help but feel a deep respect for these men and women who have worked under these circumstances, who have dared to create something, albeit unfinished, which can be regarded as an important evidence of the creative human spirit.
“What We Left Unfinished” is a documentary about the strength of the creative drive as well as the relationship of art and politics. Through Mariam Ghani’s structure of putting these unfinished films within a certain context, provided by those who have worked on these movies serves as a quite engaging narrative about Afghan history, about the people who have worked in the creative field at the time and would not give up their own visions and ideas.